Saturday, January 19, 2013

Stubs - 300

300 (2007) Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headley, David Wenham and Dominic West. Directed by Zack Snyder. Produced by Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann and Jeffrey Silver. Screenplay by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon. Based on the comic series 300 by Frank Miller. Run Time: 117 minutes. U.S.  Color. Action

Some directors excel at certain genres or types of movies. Zack Snyder appears to be one that likes to do adaptations of comic books: 300, Watchmen and Man of Steel, three of the six films he’s directed have been based on these forms of literature. (For those of you who don’t know, Man of Steel is the new reboot of the Superman franchise, due later in 2013).

Adapting a comic book or a graphic novel to the big screen has its own challenges. Unlike the standard book, comics and graphic novels are already visual mediums, oftentimes with rabid fan followings. There are certain expectations that have to be met since we all have seen what Superman or Batman looks like, you can’t toy with the visuals too much or stray too far from the storyline without garnering the ire of those who have followed the storyline, sometimes for years. (It will be interesting to see how high a supposed dark take on the Superman myth will really fly.)

Source Material: 300 Comic Book

But there are sometimes elements that work or don’t work in, say a graphic novel, that won’t fly on the silver screen. In this instance, I’m thinking of the giant octopus at the end of the Watchmen comic. Frankly, I’m not really sure it worked all that well in the comic book, but I’m really sure it wouldn’t have worked at all in the movie version. One has to view and appreciate source materials and films made for them as separate artworks, each with their own guidelines, languages, what have you’s, etc. (Don’t mean to get technical there on you.)

So when reviewing a movie, it is best to look at the movie itself and not worry too much about the source from which it came, except to note the differences as what they are. In this case, while I am aware of the 300 comic series by Frank Miller, I have not read it. Miller’s Sin City franchise has also been turned into a film, but in that case, he co-directed the film adaptation. He also wrote and directed an adaptation of Will Eisner’s The Spirit (2008).

The original comic and the movie can be classified as historical fiction since the settings and the main events really did happen. Sparta was a real place, a Greek city-state, which concentrated on military training and excellence. In order to be a citizen with full rights, a man had to be trained in the military from the age of seven to the age of 30, or the age of full citizenship. This was apparently not a nation for wussies. Even the women were expected to be physically fit since Spartans believed strong and healthy parents produce strong and healthy children.

Leonidas, the Spartan king, really lived and ruled the city-state from 490 B.C. at the age of 50, to 480 B.C. when he died at the Battle of Thermopylae, depicted in the film. Leonidas did lead his band of 300 Spartiates (soldiers) into battle against the invading Persian army lead by Xerxes I, they were actually part of a larger Greek force that numbered somewhere between 5,000 to 11,000 troops. The Greeks tried and failed to defend the pass at Thermopylae against the Persian force of between 70,000 to 300,000. While the Persians lost approximately 20,000 in the fight, it is still a numbers game and they would win the day, though the battle took three days to complete.

Gerard Butler as King Leonidas
But this is not supposed to be a history lesson, rather a review of a movie. Our version is narrated by Dilios (David Wenham), a soldier and wounded member of the 300. He relates the story of Leonidas from his boyhood to becoming the King of Sparta, which the movie portrays as being tied to his killing of a wolf while out on a survival test. Fast forward to the king, portrayed as a man of about 40, when a messenger from Xerxes (Peter Mensah) arrives to demand surrender. But that’s not going to happen and the messenger and his entourage are pushed down a convenient and extra large, bottomless pit.

David Wenham as Dilios in better days.

Even though there is an invading army on the way, Leonidas cannot act without first approaching the Ephros, a leprosy-ridden group of old men whose blessing he needs. To get there, Leonidas is required to scale a mountain face, which seems life-threatening at best. The Ephros, in turn, have to consult the Oracle Pythia (Kelly Craig), who is a drugged out Spartan woman, whom we’re led to believe is sexually ravaged from time to time by the Ephros. She whispers to one of the Ephros, who tells Leonidas that the Spartans cannot go to war during the religious festival Carnea, a Spartan ritual held in honor of Apollo Carneous. After Leonidas leaves, we see that there are two other men in the temple, one of them is Theron (Dominic West), a Spartan politician and the other is an emissary of Xerxes, who has bribed the Ephros with money. So much I guess for trusting an Oracle.

Dominic West as Theron

Since Spartan law prohibits Leonidas from starting a war without the blessings of the Ephros, he has to fake it. Instead of gathering his entire army, he gathers only 300, all men who have male children to carry on their bloodlines. Even Captain Artemis (Vincent Regan) includes his eldest male son Astinos (Tom Wisdom) in the group because he has other male sons to carry on the family name. Rather than starting a war, Leonidas is going out for a long walk with 300 bodyguards. There to see him off is his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headley) and their son Pleistarchus (Giovanni Cimmino). Gorgo tells Leonidas to either come back with his shield or on top of it.

Lena Headley as Queen Gorgo

Leonidas’ plan is to force the Persian army through a narrow passage called Thermopylae or the Hot Gates. That way the size in force advantage won’t help Xerxes. On the way, the Spartans are joined by the Arcadians, led by Daxos (Andrew Pleavin). Unlike the Spartan, the Arcadians are amateur soldiers and even though there are more of them, Leonidas discounts their contribution, though he willingly accepts their help.

One more person gets introduced. Originally seen as a shadowy figure trailing the 300, Ephiates (Andrew Tierman) is a deformed Spartan, whose parents had left Sparta in order to spare his life. (Deformed infants are killed right away in Sparta.) His father had been a Spartan soldier and Ephiates is wearing what he can of the uniform. Ephiates warns Leonidas of a goat path that the Persians could use to outflank the Spartans and asks to join in the fight. But Leonidas tells him to stand down. Because of his deformity, Ephiates cannot hold up his shield and thus couldn’t be a part of the Spartan’s phalanx formation.

The Persian’s attack, but the phalanx formation repels them and the Spartans are able to repulse the first wave of invaders. When Xerxes sends another messenger, the Spartan’s maim him. He warns them of an arrow attack that will darken the sky, but the Spartan’s laugh and are able to survive that attack pretty much unscathed.

Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) even meets one on one with Leonidas. He promises the same thing all of his messengers have before, that Leonidas can rule Greece, he just has to bow down to him. Leonidas refuses and the battle enjoins. Xerxes sends the immortals, his elite shock troops. But the Spartans withstand them. Next Xerxes sends more exotic weapons and even armed animals, but the Spartans are still standing. During one of the battles, Astinos is killed in front of his father, who goes into deep mourning.

Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes

Meanwhile, back in Sparta, Gorgo tries to rally support for her husband. She meets with a loyal Spartan politician, who arranges for her to speak to the Council in two days. But he recommends that she use the time before her appearance to try and win over Theron. When she meets with him, she bargains a sexual encounter for the promise of support. But when she does appear, he betrays her and accuses her of being an adulterer and for bargaining sex for support. Outraged, Gorgo kills Theron, stabbing him with a sword. When he falls to the floor, gold coins with Xerxes’ image on them spill out and Theron’s betrayal is revealed.

Refused by Leonidas, Ephiates goes over to the other side. Xerxes makes promises including a uniform, and Ephiates leads Persian immortals to the goat path. Outflanked and outmanned, the Spartans make one more stand before they are all killed. But not before Leonidas sends Dilios back to Sparta to spread the word. And it is Dilios who continues his narration as a way of rallying the new Greek army that is on their way to fight Xerxes.

This is not a family feel good sort of movie. In fact, this is not a family movie at all. The film earns its R rating and it is a hard R. There is nudity, bare female breasts and male buttocks, but it is the violence that earns the rating. People are maimed, stabbed and beheaded over and over again, with spattering blood and spinning heads and a lot of it in slow motion, which Snyder seems to love. As much of the sex is gratuitous the violence is more so. 

While I’m not against violence in movies, I don’t love it and after a while, it stops being enjoyable and frankly, one gouging looks pretty much like every other one. But this is not the extent of the film’s nightmare fuel. The deformed Ephiates is easy on the eyes compared to the Uber immortal (Robert Maillet) and the saw handed Executioner (Leon Laderach) who, what else, beheads Persians who have displeased Xerxes.

300 is a testament to testosterone. Not only are all the Spartans buff to a fault, but they also live and die based on a code of ethics that actually rewards death in battle over strategic thinking. Leonidas does not have to die, but he’s too proud to retreat and regroup. You can’t fault the film for being somewhat faithful to the events as they actually happened.

Testament to Testosterone

The most intriguing thing about 300 is the visuals. The coloring is pushed so that it looks unreal and like a comic book. And there is the use of slow-motion action sequences that only highlight the blood and violence. This film has a style to it, and one that you see over again in Snyder’s work. (Watchmen has the same love of blood and slow motion action as 300.)

The question now that I’ve seen this movie twice would be would I want to see it again or recommend it to someone? Honestly, I can say I’d rather not on both counts. This is one of those films men are supposed to see, though the six packs are really meant for the ladies. The film did make a star out of Gerard Butler, whom I imagine is better known for his physique than his acting chops.

If you’re a big fan of Frank Miller’s work, then it might be interesting to see in order to see the changes between comic book and film. Otherwise, you might want to save yourself and not see 300. If you feel you have to see Zack Snyder adapt a comic book, I’d definitely recommend Watchmen over this film.

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